Warsaw's Worst Fire 55 Years Ago

by Edwin C. Aborn

March 20 will mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the most disastrous fire in Warsaw's more or less checkered historical career the burning of the Wright house block, a four-story brick structure which stood on the northeast corner of Center and Buffalo street, March 20, 1883.

The Wright house at the time of its destruction on the above-named date, called the Lake View Hotel, was erected in 1869 and formally dedicated on July 26 of that year with an elaborate banquet. It was built by Benjamin P. Wright to replace an old-time frame tavern which occupied the site and was destroyed by fire in 1868.

Finest in County.
The new building was a four-story structure, with a frontage of 88 feet on Center street and 66 feet on Buffalo street. The design was in keeping with the architecture of that period and presented a most imposing appearance.

The ground floor and basement were reserved for business rooms. A broad staircase on the Center street side led to the second floor, where were located the business offices, parlor, dining room, laundry, sample rooms, etc., while the third and fourth floors were devoted entirely to sleeping apartments. A large balcony extended the full length of the building on Center street from which numerous prominent speakers of state and national repute on various occasions addressed assembled multitudes in the street below.

Name changed to Lake View

On the occasion of the death of Benjamin Wright, the management of the hotel was taken over by William Kirtley, founder and former manager of the Kirtley House, a well-known hotel of Warsaw's early days. Mr. Kirtley changed the name of the Wright House to that of the Lake View hotel. The east room of the building had for some time prior to the demise of Mr. Wright, become the property of John Grabner and was divided from the main portion of the building by a fire wall.

Fire Started in Oil Room
Lake in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 20, 1883, fifty-five years ago, fire was discovered in a room adjoining the office on the second floor. In this room was stored lamps, oils and other supplies for illuminating purposes. Warsaw as that time had no electric light plant and gas mains had but recently been installed. When discovered the flames had already gained headway. An alarm was sounded, and the volunteer fire department responded.

The city had no water works system in those days, the only water available for fire fighting being contained in cisterns located at principal street intersections. The fire continued to spread and water in the cisterns became exhausted. All available fire hose in the city was insufficient to ready from the scene of the conflagration to Center lake, a distance of three and one-half blocks.

Wind Fans Flames
The fire was fanned by a brisk west wind and other buildings were endangered to such an extent that Mayor Ed Greene wired Fort Wayne for assistance. A company of fire fighters, a pumper and necessary equipment was accordingly ordered to proceed to Warsaw.

Engineer Ellenwood's Record Run
Arrangements were hurriedly made with the Pennsylvania railroad officials for a special train to rush the Fort Wayne department to Warsaw's aid. A locomotive in the Fort Wayne yards was in readiness to be coupled onto a westbound freight train, but was hurriedly diverted therefrom and attached to two gondola cars upon which the fire-fighting paraphernalia had in the meantime been loaded.

A yard engine buckled a caboose containing a train crew onto the gondolas, and the special was on its way. The railroad at that time was a single track line and the train dispatcher had ordered all trains sidetracked between Fort Wayne and Warsaw that the special might have undisputed right-of-way. The locomotive pulling the special was one of the clumsy type used in the freight service of that period. It was piloted by Engineer Rodney Ellenwood, who pounded his way through the night and brought the special to a stop at Buffalo street, having covered the forty miles between Fort Wayne and Warsaw in a fraction less than 38 minutes, a remarkable speed in that era for a clumsy freight engine. The intrepid engineer, Rodney Ellenwood, was acclaimed in railroad circles as an annihiliator of space of exceptional ability in recognition of his record-breaking run. He died in his home in Fort Wayne about ten years ago, although he had been for some time on the company's retired list.

Water Pumped from Center Lake
Following arrival of the train the Fort Wayne equipment was hurriedly unloaded and rushed five blocks distance to Center lake at the foot of Buffalo street. An abundance of water was soon available and the flames brought under control, but it was apparent that the hotel edifice was doomed. However, the safety of the adjoining buildings was assured. Soon the high walls began to sway and policemen beat the crowds back. Then the south wall crumbled and crashed with a deafening roar, smashing windows and fronts of business rooms on the opposite side of the street. The streets were at that time unpaved and sidewalks were narrow and built of boards. Julius Borglund, an employee of Phillipson's Clothing company, received a broken leg, and John D. Kutz, at that time manager of the Warsaw Gas company, was painfully injured by debris from a falling wall.

Not Much Insurance
In addition to the loss sustained by the owners of the building and William Kirtley, the landlord, were those who maintained business establishments therein. George Pringle conducted a saloon in the corner room; Richardson & Moran had a stock of dry goods, clothing and boots and shoes in the second door east on Center street; the Gottsman Sisters conducted a millinery emporium in the third room. On the Buffalo street side was a cigar and tobacco store operated by George Crebbs. The balance of the space on this side of the building was taken up by two stairways, one the ladies' entrance, the other leading to the culinary department.

Merchandise Lost
Considerable merchandise was carried from the business rooms, but damage from smoke and water contributed greatly to the loss. Only a moderate amount of insurance was carried. The room to the east of the hotel proper, owned and occupied by John Grabner as a hardware store, now conducted by the Pottenger Brothers, escaped serious damage, due to the existence of a fire wall. An accurate idea of the appearance of the hotel may be had by viewing the Grabner room. The entire building was an exact prototype of that room, the surviving remnant of the Wright House block.

Saloon Becomes Postoffice
At the time of this disastrous fire the postoffice was located in the room now occupied by Mumaw's news depot. During the progress of the conflagration the destruction of all buildings in the entire block seemed imminent and the removal of the postoffice was deemed advisable by the postmaster, Capt. John N. Runyan. On the opposite side of the street in a frame building, where now stands the Elks' temple, was a saloon and pool room operated by Robert M. Hickman. The latter is said to have suggested to Postmaster Runyan that Warsaw could probably manage to struggle along with one less saloon to better advantage than to do with a postoffice. He accordingly removed the bar and pool tables and placed his room at the disposal of the postmaster. To this location the office was removed, where the government's business was carried on until the former quarters were again placed in readiness for occupancy.

Risen from the Ashes
The imposing four-story Lake View hotel was no more. Only a mass of smouldering ruinsa wreckage of brick, stone, mortar and twisted iron. Within a short time, however, the real estate changed ownership and the present three-story structure, which now adorns the site, was erected.

Warsaw Daily Times March 19, 1938

Back to YesterYear in Print